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Man Paralyzed in Crash Settles Suit for $3.5 Million

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Rolling Hills Estates man paralyzed in a traffic accident after a high school football game has settled his civil lawsuit against the city of Torrance and the school district for $3.5 million.

Torrance officials on Wednesday agreed to pay $1.75 million to James Carroll, 28, who became a quadriplegic because of the accident. The Torrance Unified School District reached an agreement with Carroll last week and revealed Wednesday that the settlement amount also was $1.75 million.

Counting earlier settlements with several other defendants in the case, Carroll will collect just over $3.8 million. His attorney said the money will be placed in trust to care for Carroll over his lifetime.

“I’m relieved and happy that the case is over,” Carroll said in a telephone interview from his attorney’s office Wednesday. “This has been very frustrating. Being the active person that I was and then having to fight just to be able to push a wheelchair from a bed to the edge of a hallway in a hospital, it’s just been an uphill battle . . . to gain any independence at all.”

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On Nov. 8, 1985, Carroll’s neck was broken when the truck he was riding in veered suddenly around a car driven by Torrance resident Soo Yang as she tried to turn left from a South High School exit onto Calle Mayor. The truck collided with a utility pole.

None of the other four people in the two vehicles were seriously hurt in the accident.

Carroll, however, was sitting on a bean bag chair in a camper shell attached to the bed of the truck. He suffered a fracture in the lower part of his neck during the crash, leaving him with only limited motion in his arms and hands. Although able to drive a specially equipped van, he must rely on other people and his trained dog, Zelig, to perform even the most routine tasks.

According to Carroll’s attorney, Thomas Stolpman, the accident was caused in part because the Torrance Police Department failed to maintain traffic controls long enough after a football game at the school.

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During opening statements in a civil trial that began early this month, Stolpman said the school district routinely contracted with police to provide crowd and traffic control at the football games. At the end of the game, he said, a squad car would be parked on Calle Mayor at an alley leading from the high school and flares set out to force drivers leaving the game to turn right onto Calle Mayor.

Attorneys for all sides disagreed about how long after the football game the accident took place on the night of the accident. However, they agree that police had doused their flares and left the scene before the crash.

Had the case continued, the jury would have been asked to decide who was to blame for the accident, how much Carroll should be awarded and what portion of the total damages each defendant’s liability should be.

Unfortunately for the city and school district, the accident happened before a state law was approved limiting a public entity’s liability in civil cases.

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Because of the old law, if the city or school district had been found even 1% liable for Carroll’s injuries, and Yang or her insurance was unable to pay all damages awarded, the public agencies would have been forced to make up the difference.

Attorneys for the city and district estimated the jury award would have been between $7 million and $12 million.

“It was a very difficult recommendation for me to make,” said attorney John A. Daly, who represented the city. “The city can certainly handle ($1.75 million), I suspect, much better than they could a much greater amount later on. . . . And, obviously, jurors are going to be very much persuaded by the devastating nature of these injuries.”

Because the city carried no liability insurance at the time of the accident, the money must come from Torrance’s self-insured reserves, city officials said. About $1.5 million had been set aside to cover this case, they said.

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In the last 20 months, Torrance has been hit by more than $10 million in large legal settlements, most of which have been paid by the city itself.

This case represented the last of the large legal claims facing the city, attorneys said.

“We felt this was the prudent road to take,” Mayor Katy Geissert said. “Everyone, of course, feels very, very sorry to see anyone paralyzed as this young man is, but to say that his condition is the fault of the city is really stretching the mind considerably. . . . But all of the legal advice we got was to settle, or there might be a judgment by jury that would be substantially greater.”

Now that the case is over, Carroll said, he intends to marry his girlfriend, complete a rehabilitation program that may allow him to work and do the best he can to build a new life for himself.

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“Before my accident, I dreamed of getting married and having a large family, because I come from a very large family . . . seven brothers and sisters,” he said.

Doctors have said his injuries will prevent him from fathering any children, but Carroll said he intends to raise his fiancee’s young daughter as his own.

“At first I was bitter, but I have a big, loving family and some good friends who haven’t given me much of a chance to be bitter,” he said.


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